Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Best Books We Read 2011

2011 was, for whatever reason, a year of literary obsessions for me. On a few occasions this took the form of re-reading the same book over and over (which I did with this one, this one, and this one. Don't ask.) Themes have also taken hold, like my current curiosity about the mythology and impact of the Brontes, which has resulted in a reading stack consisting of this, this, and this.

But the most surprising and wonderful literary fixation I developed this year hadn't happened to me for quite some time: I discovered and developed a voracious appetite for the works of a single author, and for a few months straight, every time I put down one of her books, my fingers itched for another. I would entertain the idea of reading something different, pull a book from the shelf and place it next to my bed with the best of intentions, but when it came time to open one I'd find myself grasping for that distinctively orange Penguin spine. For this is the year I became an Angela Carter addict.

I'd been reading around Carter for a while, despite knowing that she was up my alley. Then one day I finally picked up the short story collection Saints and Strangers and, leaning against a shelf at Red Hill Books, read the opening paragraph of the opening story: a description of the oppressively humid summer weather which some say resulted in the famous Lizzie Borden axe murders. The subject matter alone hooked me, but it was the breathtaking sentences, each one draped atop the previous in a featherlight perfection that downright chills even as it makes you sweat, that really made me weak in the knees. And so my summer of Angela began.

Those that I loved most were her short stories, some collections of which have gone out of print but are all available in Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories of Angela Carter. If this body of work has a theme, I could only describe it as hauntings. In The Bloody Chamber, the eeriest qualities of fairy tales are expounded upon to the point where they resonate with an uncanny familiarity that is nothing like the Beauty and the Beast you consciously know. My two favorite collections, Saints and Strangers and American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, echo with distinctively American mythologies of tragedy, piousness, fate and ruin -- a particularly unruly set of ghosts to pin down. Even the collection Fireworks, unique in the fact that most of the stories therein are narrated in the first person by a contemporary voice that could be Carter's own, wrestles with the phantoms of self -perception and the narratives constructed in day-to-day loneliness. What's truly remarkable is that despite the familiar terrain of her subjects -- fairy tales, well-known lores, and the most basic struggles with personhood -- almost every sentence in this book astounds.

Having devoured Burning Your Boats, I moved on to her novels, which feature writing just as impeccable as their immersive, magnificent plots. My favorite of these was Wise Children, the story of stage sensations Dora and Nora Chance and a hilarious and clever nod to good old Shakespearean comedy ("tragedy that happens to other people"), which probably contained hundreds of winks to the Bard of which I understood like four. But that was okay, because I like books that make me want to be smarter (why else read?) and because the story has every great premise and lives up to them all: fiercely independent and quick-witted old ladies, multiple generations of twins, cases of mistaken identity, paternity mishaps, a real wedding, a fake wedding, revenge, a donkey costume, births, deaths, and everything in between -- and it all takes place in one day (with many a dive into murky memory). It was Carter's last novel before her death in 1992, and it's the literary equivalent of high-kicking off the stage to a fireworks show, hook and fat lady be damned.

I can think of no better end to a hell of a year than on that note.

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